Ronald Reagan Honored Nazis?

December 2, 2011

Political Theory


Reagan strolls into Bitburg cemetery to lay a wreath for German soldiers lost in World War II, including 49 Nazi SS troops.

I spent my Thursday night at the Michigan Theater spending an evening with Michael Moore. As always, Moore was blunt, hilarious, and compelling. It was a great night. However, I found my jaw drop shortly after he began reading one of the short stories in his book, “Here Comes Trouble.”

In the spring of 1985, the seven leading economies of the world (which would later be known as the G-7, then the G-8, then the G-20, and so on) decided to hold an economic summit in Bonn, West Germany. President Reagan would attend, representing the United States. Somewhere along the way, someone in his administration thought it would be a good idea while Reagan was in the Fatherland to go and lay an official wreath on the graves of some Nazi soldiers. When various Jewish and human rights groups objected, he dug his heels in and refused to cancel the ceremony – and in fact, just to prove his stubbornness and his point, he upped the ante and said he would now lay the wreath on the graves of not just any run-of-the-mill Nazis, but on the burial plots of the psychopaths known a the Nazi SS. Nice.

Michael Moore then ends the story with his Jewish friend and him flying to Bitburg and sneaking through 19 checkpoints to hold up a sign towards Reagan’s limo that said, “We Came From Michigan, USA, to Remind You: They Murdered My Family.”

I am anticipating a response from Reaganites that Reagan was simply honoring dead German soldiers; many of whom had no choice in their decision to support the Third Reich. And while that may be true, then why did Reagan specifically lay wreaths on the graves of Nazi SS troops?  If you are not aware, the Waffen SS were Hitler’s execution thugs. Another argument that is often made is that when Reagan’s chief of staff visited Bitburg snow covered the grave and he was not aware that underneath them laid SS soldiers. By the time the administration realized what laid under the snow, they had already agreed to the visit. Not wanting to disappoint the Chancellor and break the promise, they refused to cancel. Reagan also refused, at the Chancellors urging, to visit a concentration camp while in Germany.

In reaction, 53 senators (including 11 Republicans) and 257 representatives (including 84 Republicans) voiced their opposition to Reagan visiting. Numerous other government officials, military members, celebrities, Jews and Holocaust survivors from all over the world vehemently opposed Reagan visiting as well. The Ramones wrote the song, Bonzo Goes To Bitburg about the incident. In days leading up to the event many members in Reagan’s administration, including his wife Nancy, all urged him to cancel the trip. Alas, he did not, but he did make a small change to his itinerary. He would visit the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen first (Rabbis refused to attend and would not be joining him), before going to Bitburg to place a wreath on the graves of the same SS soldiers who executed the 50,000 Jews he just visited. It should be noted that this change in itinerary was a last-minute decision made by Reagan as he flew on Air Force One to West Germany. You can’t make this stuff up.

Another counter argument may be that Reagan was simply trying to bridge ties between the United States and West Germany. Chancellor Kohl had previously been rejected from attending the G-7 Conference and to make up for that Reagan would visit him and attend the ceremony in Bitburg. Apparently Ronald Reagan felt that not hurting the Chancellor of West Germany’s feelings was more important than upsetting the majority of his administration, the senate, congress, the U.S. population, Jews and Holocaust survivors around the world, and his own wife.

When Reagan returned to the United States after finishing what many within and outside his administration call his largest foreign policy fiasco he said, “They [SS troops] were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” Reagan continued to receive harsh criticism after the event, especially because his summary of the event included equating Holocaust victims to SS soldiers.

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